Back in September, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) held their latest round of public open houses on the Seattle Streetcar to discuss the updated design of the Center City Connector (CCC) Streetcar line. This was the last round of open houses before the project enters the Final Design phase.

The CCC is essentially a working-revenue connection between the existing South Lake Union (SLU) line and the new First Hill Streetcar (FHS) line. The CCC will feature overlapping service in central core of the city from Pioneer Square to Westlake by both lines. This will allow for an operational frequency of as little as every five minutes. Furthermore, the CCC will take full advantage of exclusive streetcar-only lanes in the center of First Avenue bypassing much of the usual traffic congestion.

At one meeting, the audience was presented with the usual collection of mounted display boards illustrating the various aspects of the project, from its preliminary schedule to visualizations of each future streetcar stop. SDOT staff and their consultants were on hand to discuss the project with visitors.

The Route

The Center City Connector will connect with the First Hill Streetcar at the existing station on S Jackson St and Occidental Ave S.

Cherry/Columbia & Jackson/Occidental stations
Cherry/Columbia & Jackson/Occidental stations (click for larger view)

New track will be laid on the south side of the existing platform and a new connection will be required to the existing outbound track. The existing turnout will be retained to allow for trams to reverse direction here, if required.

Upon entering First Avenue, the CCC will operate in the center of First Avenue. In Pioneer Square, the existing median and trees will be kept (with improvements as required). The planned stop between Yesler Way and Cherry Street, however, has been moved to the north side of the intersection of First Avenue and Cherry Street. This arrangement was chosen in order to preserve the existing atmosphere and tree canopy near the Pergola and Totem Pole.

Madison/Spring & Cherry/Columbia stations (click for larger version)
Madison/Spring & Cherry/Columbia stations (click for larger view)

Depending on the final design of the Madison BRT line, there is the potential for those trolleybuses to use the northbound streetcar lane at the Madison Street & Spring Street stop. This may require slight adjustments to the station in order to support both types of vehicles.

Pike/Pine Station (click for larger view)
Pike/Pine Station (click for larger version)

The last stop on First Avenue, serving Pike Place Market, will be located between Pike Street and Pine Street. This is also the beginning and end of the exclusive transit lanes on First Avenue.

The CCC line will then head east on Stewart Street, running along the south curb towards Westlake Avenue. While general traffic will remain westbound only, there is a chance that the contraflow streetcar lane may also be used by other transit vehicles.

Westlake & Stewart/Third Avenue Stations (click for larger version)
Westlake & Stewart/Third Avenue Stations (click for larger view)

The next stop, at the intersection of Stewart Street and Olive Way (between Third and Fourth Avenues), will be repurposed as a streetcar — and potentially bus — stop. The island with the great tree will be kept and the eastbound streetcar track will wrap around it. This will be the closest stop to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel and should provide decent connections to the plethora of Third Avenue bus lines.

Upon reaching Westlake Avenue, the CCC line will turn north and serve a brand new island station across from the Westin Hotel and the existing South Lake Union line terminus. As with S Jackson St and Occidental Ave S, the ability for the SLU streetcars to reverse here will be retained. The existing terminal track at McGraw Square may also be retained for special events, but this will ultimately depend on the costs involved with the additional added complexity.

Operations

CCC Operations
CCC Operations

As mentioned, the Center City Connector will not be a “new streetcar line” as much as extensions of the existing South Lake Union line and First Hill Streetcar line. When operating, trams from SLU will operate all the way to 8th Ave S and S Jackson St, and FHS trams will operate all the way to a terminus on Westlake Avenue. This overlap of the two lines is what will allow for a frequency of every five minutes to be realized.

The CCC will operate along First Avenue, from S Jackson St to Pine Street in its own exclusive lanes. When completed, the separation between traffic and streetcars will be clearly defined, both by height (similar to Link Light Rail on MLK Jr Way S) as well as by the surface materials chosen for the trackways. The four new stations along First Avenue will all be shared, island platforms that will extend the entire block connecting to the adjacent crosswalks.

Financing

Financing the Center City Connector
Financing the Center City Connector

The Center City Connector project is currently estimated to cost $135 million (2017 dollars). This includes $83 million for utility relocation and road, track, and station construction as well as $40 million for ten new off-wire capable streetcars — seven additional streetcars and three to replace the older South Lake Union line streetcars.

The CCC line will not be funded through the Move Seattle Levy if it passes. Instead, funding for this project will come from a mix of Federal-matching grants (FTA Small Starts) along with local sources, such as: municipal bonds and other related fees and sources (namely on-street advertising and naming rights). This particular project has already seen favored response by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Federal government, which should assist the City in their funding efforts.

Pedestrians

Along with the reconstruction of First Avenue, attention will be focused on repairing the sidewalks and making any necessary ADA compliant changes while maintaining the unique look of the existing neighborhood.

The preliminary design calls for the installation of table-top intersections along First Avenue. This will involve raising the street surface at each intersection, except Pike Street, so to ensure they are level with the sidewalks. The design of raised intersections allows for easier crossing by pedestrians while dissuading vehicles from speeding through the corridor. The First Avenue and Pike Street intersection was excluded from this treatment because the City does not wish to harm the “charm” and “character” of the entrance to Pike Place Market.

Finally, pedestrian-scramble (all way walk) signal cycles are being considered at these locations to further improve pedestrian safety. These are similar to those at Pike Street and University Street.

Cars and Trucks

As part of the streetcar line construction process, First Avenue should receive a complete structural rebuild, which will ultimately provide a better ride to those driving on First Avenue. Vehicular traffic will be relegated to a single lane in both directions. Where possible, commercial loading zones will be retained, added, or relocated. And finally, signalized left-turn pockets will be provided for vehicles where appropriate.

The addition of dedicated left-turn lanes and signals as well as dedicated pedestrian crossing cycles should help improve the general traffic flow along First Avenue.

Car Storage

Park Once & Ride the Streetcar
Park Once & Ride the Streetcar

On-street parking spaces on First Avenue will largely be retained. However, there will be an overall loss of about 144 spaces — of which many currently time-restricted. Countless studies exist that show a direct correlation between less parking and improved business. But the City realizes that many people still drive into Downtown.

To help mitigate this minor loss of on-street parking, the City work with the many underutilized parking garages, located near First Avenue, to encourage their use instead — potentially offering a free tram ride in the process.

An Opportunity, Missed

One of the noticeable omissions from this new streetcar line is a stop outside of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). The logic behind limiting the number of stops in order to speed service indeed a priority, however, the SAM is worthy of a stop. Adding a stop there would maintain the current stop pattern of one every two blocks, and the exclusive exclusive lanes should make up for the additional 30 seconds or so that the additional stop would generate per trip. It also closes the only obvious service gap along the line.

Missed Opportunities: The CCC as planned (left) & with an additional stop at the Seattle Art Museum (right)
Missed Opportunities: The CCC as planned (left) & with an additional stop at the Seattle Art Museum (right)

If a stop at SAM is desirable, even if only in the future, the track layout must be planned now in order to accommodate the space that an island platform would require. As it stands, omitting a station here (even if only planned) will be seen in the future as a missed opportunity. And one that will not be easily correctable after the fact.

Next Steps

The past year has seen many refinements to the overall design of the Center City Connector line, leading finally to the Final Design stage of the project. The next steps will be for the City to file the required Environmental Assessment and SEPA documentation. There will be at least one, preferably two, more open houses during 2016 where the Final Design will be available for public comment and where the public will receive further updates on financing and construction.

CCC Construction Schedule
CCC Construction Schedule

Provided there are no serious delays, construction of the CCC may begin as early as late 2016. There are currently three different scheduling options being studied, mixing the balance between time and cost. However, at most, it should take about two years to complete the line.

As the line will require off-wire capable streetcars, it is very likely that Inekon, the current vendor, will be retained to produce the new streetcars. Now that the necessary experience exists, future purchases should be much more timely and trouble-free. However, both Pennsylvania based Brookville, and Japanese based Kinkisharyo (manufacturer of Link’s LRVs), also offer competing off-wire capable trams so alternative vendors are available to meet our city’s requirements if necessary.

Conclusion

While one may easily debate the merits of streetcars in modern-day cities, in the context of this project and article, it is clear that City of Seattle has tried to learn and prevent many of the problems that the two existing lines face operating in mixed traffic. By overlapping the service from the two lines, Seattle will have a frequent, reliable connection between different neighborhoods in Downtown Seattle. Whether a tourist visiting, or a worker exploring new opportunities for meals, the Center City Connector should help invigorate and improve the corridor for the better.

For further information about the Seattle Streetcar lines including the Center City Connector, please visit SeattleStreetcar.org.

Special thanks to SDOT for the graphics and Ethan Melone at The Seattle Streetcar for answering my many questions.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. Great post, thank you! Why not extend the “blue line” 2 more blocks to Valley Street? There is a lot of pedestrian traffic around Mohai and the Center for Wooden Boats, and the 3 empty lots between Mercer and Valley will soon sport large commercial and/or residential buildings. There’s already a lot of cross-Mercer pedestrian traffic, which will only increase; it seems like a mobility win for cars and people to have a trolley run to Valley every 5 minutes during rush hour, rather than every 10 minutes.

  2. Great article. Very informative — I very much like the diagrams and the fact that they link to full size pictures (good work by the website folks for the improvement).

    Now to the key question: Is it too late to stop this thing? We’ve been over this before, of course. Streetcars offer only one operational advantage over buses: capacity. You can build a streetcar that is bigger than a bus. Except that ours aren’t. Our buses are very big, and our streetcars aren’t that big. They are roughly the same, with a slight capacity edge (depending on seat structure) to the bus. Meanwhile, we happen to have a large existing electric trolley infrastructure. Every other supposed advantage to streetcars (level boarding, off board payment, special lanes) is possible with buses (and is currently being designed for Madison).

    Meanwhile, some of the drawbacks of streetcars are obvious when you look at the First Hill Streetcar line. Why does it zig-zag up the hill — why not save a lot of time and just go straight up the hill? The answer it can’t. Streetcars can’t go up steep hills, which make them a particularly bad choice for Seattle. But that isn’t the only flaw — in fact you mentioned one in this article:

    If a stop at SAM is desirable, even if only in the future, the track
    layout must be planned now in order to accommodate the space that an
    island platform would require.

    This problem simply doesn’t exist for buses. You just add the stop later. In fact, you can move the entire route later. Maybe 1st isn’t the best street and it would work better on 2nd. No problem, just build new platforms. This is relatively cheap. Speaking of cost, that is one of the big advantages of BRT — you can get a lot more for your money. Then there is the fact that a single accident on the line (not involving a streetcar) can cripple the line. I’ve seen this in Toronto. Not just an accident, of course, but a stalled car or temporary construction (a flagger can wave a bus into the next lane, but a train can’t get there). The trolleys have limited mobility as well, but they aren’t as limited (they can move out of their lane a fair amount). Furthermore, the latest set of trolleys can operate on battery power for short distances — essentially eliminating the problem (taking a detour is feasible if not ideal). Oh, and then there is the problem of bikes on a rail track. I’m glad to hear the city has somehow solved all our streetcar problems — so that means that we won’t have any accidents caused by the rail, right? Right?

    Extending the streetcar is just putting good money after bad. Without a doubt the existing streetcar suffers from congestion and poor frequency (which explains why ridership is so low, despite being essentially free for many years). If frequency improves and congestion is reduced, ridership should increase. But that misses the point. You can achieve the same thing with buses. Take a bus, paint it bright red and call it a streetcar. A magic streetcar, since it can climb steep hills, avoid obstacles and reduce bicycle accidents. Now the (much smaller amount of) money spent on improving the route and adding platforms is well spent.

    Can we end this madness, or are we stuck with it?

  3. Not a fan of placing the Pioneer Square station so far to the north that its right next to the Madison stop.
    Also as I’ve said on STB, this route needs to allow for shared use of normal buses given the buses being kicked out of the tunnel and congestion on 3rd Avenue now with all the buses. This transit lane capacity needs to be higher utilized to handle some of those north-south buses. Custom left doro buses just for this route would be foolish IMO. Instead of both directions sharing a single center platform have separate island platforms that can be used by normal right side door buses and the streetcar.
    I see they are doubling down on these experimental off-wire streetcars. Seems it would have been much easier just stringing a bit more wire on Capitol Hill or outfitting the streetcars with trolley poles and using the existing bus wires.

    • >> or outfitting the streetcars with trolley poles

      Yes; and then replace the steel wheels with tires and remove the track. You know, just run our trolleys. It is crazy to me that arguably the best bit of transit infrastructure that we have is being ignored so that we can pursue this ridiculous retro fad. The trolleys are really well suited for our area (since we have cheap electricity and big hills). Streetcars are not (since we have steep hills and a very active bike community). I think it is bizarre and sad that we are not leveraging our existing trolley infrastructure, especially since it is a lot more robust and flexible than the streetcars we happened to invest in.

      • I’m in strong agreement about using our trolley buses more but there is a place for streetcars/LRT and this is one given its connecting two existing lines. Regardless, the key, whether bus or rail, is dedicated lanes for transit. Mode is rather irrelevant, though rail vehicles can carry significantly more people. I do think we can and do more with buses of all types.

        • >> rail vehicles can carry significantly more people

          This is a common misconception. Some rail vehicles can carry more people than some buses. But not all rail vehicles can carry more people than all buses. Our particular streetcars are small, and thus can not carry more people than our bigger buses. This is a key point, which I mention above. Our buses are big, our streetcars are small. Let me be as clear as possible: These trolley cars do not have a greater capacity than our buses.

          Mode is not irrelevant. Streetcars are more expensive and less flexible, both from an operational standpoint and a construction standpoint. This article mentions just one aspect of that (support a SAM station now or spend a huge amount of money later to support it). Buses don’t have that issue. Nor do buses have the issues with temporary (or long term) lane closures caused by accidents, construction, stalled cars or debris. A bus or trolley can switch lanes or take a completely different street (our trolleys can operate on battery power for a short distance). A streetcar can’t even deviate from the path one foot.

          Extending or changing the route with buses (even trolleys) is much easier and cheaper than changing the route with streetcars. The recent restructure is a sign of things to come. As our transit system and city evolves, we can expect our low capacity routes (buses, trolleys and streetcars) to go through route changes. The more flexible the system, the better. Trolleys are less flexible than diesel buses, but they offer major operational advantages (they can climb hills much faster). Trolleys are much less flexible (it costs a lot more to lay track than move wire) and offer no operational advantages.

          Your point about connecting the two lines is a good one, and one mentioned by RDPence. However, if we ultimately get rid of the streetcars (and I think we will because of the disadvantages mentioned) I don’t think spending money making them better in the short term is a good approach.

  4. Did I miss discussion of the way the streetcar tracks will work for people riding bikes? I’m concerned about the curb tracks on Stewart creating a situation similar to Westlake.

    • Westbound shouldn’t be a problem since that is the general traffic direction so any of the remaining lanes could be used. Eastbound, though is a different story. As far as I can tell, there will be no eastbound (or west) bicycle facility along Stewart from 1st to Westlake (other than the sidewalks).

      This was the first time, however, that this portion of the route was displayed in an illustrated form. There is still time to provide feedback for the project at centercitystreetcar@seattle.gov or 206.615.1070 before the final design is locked down.

  5. Don’t suppose there are plans to connect the northern legs and form a loop? I-5 and elevation difference obviously would make it difficult.

    • Well, Seattle USED to have streetcars that ran up Eastlake to the UDistrict as well as down 10th Ave to the UDistrict (same routes as today’s rt 70 and 49) … when you cross the UDistrict bridge you can still see the metal plates that covered the space where the rails once sat.

      So could it be done? sure provided the funding is available (and public desire)

      • Yes, my long-term dream would be to see the SLU streetcar extended up through Eastlake, over the UDistrict bridge, down onto Pacific, and then up the Ave with a termination at 45th, with the Ave being converted into a pedestrian mall servicing transit and off-hour deliveries. That would create a quick connection all the way from SLU into the U-District, and provide a great stop right outside the future U-District Link Station.

        • Here’s a photo from the Seattle Municipal Archives of the tram tracks across the 10th Ave NE (University) Bridge

  6. Great summary of the project! I second the notion for a SAM stop – particularly on either side of University Street where the Harbor Steps provide a valuable pedestrian connection to the waterfront.

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